Let The Bad Times Roll

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For several weeks now, I’ve been struggling with anxiety around the idea that 2014 is going to be unbearably hard, like worse than trying to hold my awful cats Livre and Lola at the same time.

There are real and real-ish reasons to think this:
– I have an incredibly challenging job leading a startup organization with a new business model, using skills I am still developing. (That is a politic way of saying that while I’m convinced we have a great idea, and I know we have great people, I AM TERRIFIED TO NO END that I’m going to screw it up before I figure it out.)

- My daughter is turning 13. I remember being her age. I was many things. Rational, consistent and even-tempered were not among them. Some closest to me might say I have been rebooting my 13-year-old self lately. Thank god my hair is not my 13-year-old hair.

- Mom and Dad are getting older. I’m not worried about their health; Dad makes more unsolicited comments about their sex life than a 15-year-old boy would about a lack thereof. But I do worry about their obligations to others. They’ve more or less moved in with Mom’s mom (my last living grandparent and anxiety soulmate; related: when I am my grandmother’s age, I expect my daughter’s daughter to soothe me with iced Bailey’s and her handsome boyfriend). Anyway, selfishly, I miss my parents and wish they still stalked me on Facebook like they did the year I was getting divorced. More on that in a bit.

And also right now, it is negative a million degrees outside. It is awfully hard to imagine, at the moment, a day in spring when the 400 bulbs I planted in October will have arrived for the kind of party with sundresses and asparagus dishes that I love.

But to my saving grace, I have been writing woe-is-me stuff since I was about eight. I can pull a random journal off my shelf from pretty much any year and read for very little time before I’m reminded of this amazing pattern: The times I thought were hard – indeed, the times that were the toughest – turned out to be the best.

Take this one, from March 2011, two months after my divorce was finalized:

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Things That Keep Me Up At Night: From Bro-Oprahs to Convenience Marriages to Feminists’ Daughters

Here is a partial list of themes I keep thinking I’ll turn into a blog post, novel or at least a Facebook rant. Maybe you all can help me figure out what to do with them.

In no particular order:

1. Whether people in a position to hear other people’s secrets (priests, therapists, flings) have a more compassionate, or more jaded view of mankind. Related: whether you need to know someone’s secrets to really know them.

2. Young, bro-Oprah types who seem to be trying to “help people” as writers / speakers who talk about themselves a whole lot. On Twitter, at conferences, in blog posts about blogging, etc. (Are they underemployed? Looking for girlfriends? A mystery.)

3. Writing a performance review for your life. Not your work life. Your whole life. What would your goals be? How would you measure success? How would your kids, friends, doctor, neighbors rate you?

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The Small Moments

Centennial Park, Nashville

Four generations in Centennial Park

A screened porch during a thunderstorm.

Turning the music up, and turning it up again.

Pulling the car over to dance in the middle of the street.

Seeing that it’s a letter, not a bill.

When the flowers at the office are for you.

Kissing him the first time and thinking, I will write this down.

Hearing them for the first time and thinking, I will buy the whole album.

Shaving your legs in a river.

Seeing your name in print.

Laughing louder than anyone else in the room.

Crossing a finish line at the end of 13.1 miles.

Ordering a bloody mary in an airport bar.

Bicycling to the top of a very steep hill.

Flinging your shoes off from the middle of the dance floor.

Good lives are often boldest in their smallest moments.

The opportunity in loss

The people who are the best at something – the most knowledgable experts, the most passionate lovers – had to forsake other endeavors to get there.

Did you know Tony Hawk gave up the violin to ride a skateboard?

Among word people, most of us lean toward writing or editing.

The most committed and deeply talented had to turn some things down, make some choices, focus.

Or so we assume.

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She Takes the Road Less Traveled By

Lily was concerned she’d get a bad grade on her writing assignment because, as she put it, “I didn’t do it the same way as everybody else”.

A couple years ago, she turned in a social studies project that was radically different from the other kids’, and rather than praise her creativity, her teacher knocked off a few points for not following rules.

I’m glad she is the sort of kid who can put perspective to a sucker punch.

She turned in her “different” take on the latest assignment, and this year’s teacher praised it as being “a very creative way of writing the story.” Exclamation point. Smiley face.

Lily was excited for me to read her story about the Underground Railroad, which she told from three different characters traveling via a time machine. While I was impressed with her choice of narrative technique, I was truly moved by her willingness to go with it regardless of what kind of grade she might get.

I love this line, from the perspective of someone helping the escaping slaves: “I had never felt genuinely risky. Twists and turns, I loved this feeling. Adrenaline was pumping through my veins. I felt fearless. I wouldn’t get caught. I just knew I wouldn’t.”

That’s my girl.

I asked her to help me write about bravery. Continue reading

Internet bullies vs the people who really count

When I blog, I learn more about the important things – family, friends, community, faith – by reflecting on life’s pleasures – gardening, music, running, travel.

Writing here has brought me joy and clarity, many times over. Last night, though, it delivered a nasty little shock.

From the admin panel of my blogging software, I can tell at a glance what words people type into Google to find my blog. My name (and misspellings of it) are the most common. Other common search terms include topics I’ve written “how to” posts about: i.e., “how to make window frame pictures”, “test tube holders for flower arrangements” and “best way to see Taj Mahal”.

I have a working understanding of Search Engine Optimization, the science of making it easier to find stuff via Google, so none of this is surprising.

What did startle me are two phrases someone Googled in the past week:

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The One Thing vs. The Whole Thing

Guest appearance at Lipscomb. I was invited by Dr. Jimmy McCollum, who serves on The Tennessean's Advisory Board.

“I’m a journalist. I work at The Tennessean. I’m in charge of The Tennessean’s websites.”

This is how I’d answer questions like, “And what do you do?”

A strong community brand had become my own personal identity, and the rest of the things that could have made me a better, richer person were neglected at the expense of my professional goals. Continue reading

She set fire to her diaries; I’d run into a burning house for mine

The bulletin board at my desk is decorated with postcards from my friends, a favorite writer (Jonathan Franzen - second from the left) and myself.

If it is personal, I keep it. Even if it’s painful or embarrassing, often if it’s silly.

My penny loafers from high school. (It was the early 90s, the grunge era, and everyone else wore Doc Martins.)

Postcards: I have a sweet handful from friends in other states, another handful my grandparents bought during their honeymoon, and one that the novelist Jonathan Franzen sent me in response to a letter I wrote him last spring. (I have a copy of my letter to him, too, of course.)

Notes passed in class during junior high school. Thank you cards from colleagues and employees. Funny, sweet or complimentary emails in an Outlook folder labeled “Things I Should Keep”.

Photographs. Mine. My parents’. My grandparents’. My great-grandparents’. Distant relatives of whose place on the family tree I’m uncertain. (I framed a photo of my dad’s mother – in her 20s at the time – posing semi-nude on a coffee table, which I then hung above my dining room table. I show it to everybody!)

VHS cassettes of home movies shot in college. One of them was for a creative writing class; we had to write a screenplay and I co-opted my boyfriend and roommate into giving long monologues about sex, faith and death. (My favorite topics at the time.)

Letters. From my mother when I was a newborn, from my ex-husband shortly before he became my ex, from me to myself – intentionally tucked away knowing I’ll stumble across them later when I need them.

Journals from second grade on.

The journals in particular are profoundly important to me, which is why I was so touched and troubled by author Dominique Browning’s recent New York Times piece about burning her diaries.
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To my fifth-grader, from my fifth-grade self

To whoever reads this notebook,

I don’t care if you laugh, cry, or even scream out loud from rage from reading this. I’ll try to write something new in it every day. This year is my first year of Junior High. I’m 12 years old and I love to argue.

So it says on the first page of a green, wide-ruled notebook I once fastened shut with a combination lock looped through two holes punched on the side. It is one of dozens of such journals I’ve saved, knowing even as I wrote them I’d one day want to remember all the small milestones of childhood.

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